School Advocates Want ‘Pause’ on Potomac Elementary Project, Push For Auditorium at Loiederman Middle

Parents and students line up to testify on school system’s proposed six-year capital plan


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Education advocates crowd into a hearing room in Rockville to testify on a proposed school capital plan.

Bethany Rodgers

Parents in business suits, youngsters in Girl Scouts uniforms, teachers and at least one mayor crammed into an auditorium Monday night, and all had one thing in common.

They hope a proposed $1.8 billion school construction plan will meet needs in their communities.

Speaking to the Montgomery County Board of Education, advocates for A. Mario Loiederman Middle School in Silver Spring said students there need a performing arts auditorium, rather than the 125-seat black box theater included in the six-year project lineup recommended by Superintendent Jack Smith.

A mother from the Winston Churchill Cluster called for pressing “pause” on efforts to give Potomac Elementary School a new building, since parents are worried about where their children will attend classes during construction.

A representative from the Walter Johnson Cluster said parents are disappointed by lack of progress on choosing a site for a new elementary school in the area.

A succession of students from Northwood High School in Silver Spring said their 60-year-old school building needs a complete overhaul, not just the expansion described in the construction plan as written.

“Do you believe it is right to feel embarrassed about your home? To have inadequate space in your home?” Northwood junior Nicole Tapia said. “The majority of Northwood is embarrassed by our conditions.”

The hearing in the board’s meeting room was the first of three scheduled to hear community input on the superintendent’s capital improvement plan for fiscal years 2019 to 2024. The school board will hold another hearing on Wednesday and a third on Nov. 16.

The board is scheduled to vote on the plan Nov. 27.

When presenting the plan to the school board, Smith said the $1.8 billion proposal wouldn’t come close to addressing all of the school system’s demands for new capacity and facility upgrades. Given budget constraints, the school system must prioritize these projects and direct funding toward the most urgent needs, officials have said. 

Still, many parent advocates said they were encouraged by recommendations included in the capital plan.

Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman applauded a proposal to build a new high school at the Crown Farm site inside city limits.

Nermine Demopoulos, speaking for the Walter Johnson Cluster, said she and others in her community are pleased that Smith supports reopening Woodward High School in Rockville. 

But the plan’s recommendation that the new Woodward High should have space for 2,700 students came as a concern to Demopoulos and other parents, who noted that MCPS generally recommends limiting high school capacity to 2,400. Demopoulos also talked about capacity problems in the cluster and the expected enrollment growth from future development in the area.

“Housing turnover is bringing younger families of school-age children to our schools. I can attest to this, as I ran out of Halloween candy by 8 p.m.,” Demopoulos said.

To deal with these increases, she asked the school board to move forward with selecting a site for the cluster’s seventh elementary school.

Nell Rumbaugh, a representative of the Wheaton Cluster, spoke out about building a theater at Loiederman, a magnet school for the creative and performing arts. A black box theater would be too small to accommodate student productions, and staging performances at Wheaton High School isn’t feasible, Rumbaugh said.

“We need our own facility. We’re not Cirque du Soleil. We can’t take our show on the road,” Rumbaugh said.

Andrew Zuckerman, MCPS’ chief operating officer, said building a full auditorium would cost $12 million to $15 million, while about $5 million has been set aside for the black box project. Rumbaugh said individuals and organizations are lined up to donate funding for a larger venue at Loiederman, but the school board must add the larger project to the capital plan to take advantage of these private partnerships.

Stacey Shenker, a speaker from the Winston Churchill Cluster, advocated for putting a hold on construction plans for Potomac Elementary School, which is set to get a new building by 2020. The school system has planned to relocate students to the Radnor Holding Center in Bethesda during the project. Parents have bristled at the shift, saying Radnor is too far away and is in poor condition.

“While we don’t dispute that Potomac Elementary School is long overdue for a renovation, it’s in better condition than Radnor,” Shenker said.

She asked MCPS to give parents access to Radnor so they can conduct a safety inspection at the building.

They also want the project date removed from the capital plan, for the time being, so parents have time to move their children to private school and figure out alternatives to sending children to Radnor.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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